What I really wanted to be when I was growing up was a famous novelist – at least as famous as Jules Verne, and maybe even as good. Now I’m resigned to having once visited an event, probably as a seven- or eight-year-old, that was also visited (possibly on the same day, perhaps at the same time) by Kurt Vonnegut, who was then within a few years of becoming what I really wanted to become.
I say “as a seven- or eight-year-old” because the New York World’s Fair actually ran in 1964 and 1965, and I’m not quite sure in which year I went. I remember going with a friend and his mother, and I remember that my friend and I gawked at concept cars in the General Motors Pavilion, watched a movie in the IBM Pavilion, and rode through Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride in the Pepsi Pavilion (and yes, that song echoed in my brain for years). It was glorious. Never mind that this World’s Fair wasn’t even sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions – This was New York, and it was our World’s Fair.
At any rate, the fair ran from April 22 to Oct. 18, 1964 (spanning my brother’s birth) and again from April 21 to Oct. 17, 1965, and sometime in there, we appreciated the theme of “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” and we marveled at the 12-story high model of the earth called the Unisphere – a see-through stainless-steel globe that survives to this day and has earned landmark status from New York City.
The reason I’ve mentioned this unsanctioned fair at all is a passage in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I taught a class on the literature of war. This term we are reading this brilliant book in which, in a quiet offing of a stress-fractured narrative, Vonnegut offers this:
“A couple of weeks after I telephoned my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, I really did go to see him. That must have been in 1964 or so – whatever the last year was for the New York World’s Fair. ‘Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni.”
(That Latin, by the way, simply means: “Alas, the years fly past,” which reminds me of one of the riddles in Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles, a Beginners Book published in August 1960, and a book that taught me valuable lessons about humor – but more on that soon.)
Vonnegut and I may well have ridden in adjacent cars in the “Small World” ride – he with his daughter, Nanny, and her best friend Allison Mitchell, and I with my friend and my friend’s mother.
We may have sat next to one another during lunch at any of the 10 theater restaurants that served Creole food (which I don’t recall, but that’s not conclusive).
There were probably hot dog carts, as well – these being targets more likely to draw the aim of a pack of kids from Long Island and another from Cape Cod, and far more likely for Vonnegut’s professed tastes.
Given the stunning level of coincidence that is possible in this world, anything is on the table.
And somewhere a big dog barked.
Earlier, I mentioned the international riddle expert and Columbia-educated Bennett Cerf (the College and the Journalism School). He was one of the founders of Random House (distributor of his delightful Book of Riddles), a publishing house powerful enough to sign authors as diverse as William Faulkner and a man named Theodor Geisel, better known by a modified version of his middle name – Dr. Seuss.
In my world, Mr. Cerf is equally famous for a book of knee-slapping riddles, which I wore out in my home (“What time is it what an elephant sits on your clock? — Time to get a new clock!”) and for freeing James Joyce from the chains of censorship in the U.S.; it was Random House that first published the unabridged Ulysses in North America, after a court battle.
At any rate, Mr. Cerf died in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1971 – the summer I was between grades 8 and 9, and just six or seven years after Kurt Vonnegut and I visited our world’s fair together.
So it goes.
Cerf, Bennett. Bennet Cerf’s Book of Riddles. New York: Random House, 1960. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, Or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-Dance With Death. New York: Dell, 1991. Print.